"But first I want to know something," I spoke through my teeth at my old accomplice. "I need to know that this is really what you want. That this is really the person you desire to become." "You're in no position to criticize me for my choices," Flags shot back, regaining his composure. "The S.S.C is a cancer to this community and to every other community it's spread to. THEM is the only cure for this disease! We control students without the need of weapons, fighting, or intimidation. We exist only to remove the S.S.C from the equation and replace it with an order. An order where we use words to lead students in the right direction. We don't hope to end violence with more violence!" "And yet you stand beside the monster that caused all this!" I remarked, pointing to The Eye and scowling. "He hasn't learned a damned thing! None of you have!" There was a thick silence, no words emanating from beyond the doors. The soldiers were listening, taking it all in for themselves. "You know you're not leaving here?" The Eye said without a tinge of emotion. "Not until we hear it out of your mouth. Hear that the S.S.C is going away and hear the measures being put into effect to make that happen." I pulled myself back together and smiled at the two for a moment. A response that even seemed to surprise The Eye to some degree. "Well you see," I began. "That's the thing. I've been thinking a lot really. About us and you. All the times I felt that this war between us was unfair. I... think it's time that the fairness was restored. An equilibrium... that we both go out together." The Eye held to his stomach and bellowed a deep laugh at the remark, while Flags was more quiet and seemingly skeptical of what I was really talking about. "This little hovel," I chimed in, belongs to farmer and his family around this area. The names escape me at the moment, but they're very weary against outsiders... even more so against trespassers." The Eye immediately silenced his laughing and drew closer to me. "What are you try'in to say, Johnathan?" he growled. "I'm saying that as we speak, some of my guys are placing some anonymous phone calls. Calls of concerned citizens hearing shouting and seeing lights turned on all around here." The Eye suddenly shot forward, grabbing me by the neck and slamming me against the wall. "Turn off the lights!" Flags shouted in a near panic to his soldiers as the power was also cut to the base itself. Now there was murmuring from outside as THEM soldiers began to question the situation, wondering if I was bluffing or not. I let The Eye overhear the worried discussions. "Shut up!" he yelled as his grip around my throat tightened. "All of you shut up!" Now only silence once more. "My guys... may have... thrown in a few white lies about weapons here as well..." I gagged with a grin spreading over my face. "Those BB-guns might look awfully suspicious out here in the dark... I do hope the cops will recognize that before they reach for their holsters." The Eye's face lit up with rage as he pushed me harder against the wall. Flags was nearly in a panic, opening a window and looking outside for any sign of police vehicles. The murmuring from outside had increased again. "I said be quiet!" The Eye boomed once more. All became silent again. "You want to die here?" The Eye whispered into my ear. "Got nothing else in your life anymore?" "It's... hrrk... about equality... I chocked, maintaining my dazed smile. We all go out together. Not by eachothers' hands, but by the hands of the outside world. The lucky ones will be thrown behind bars... the unlucky ones... hnng... well... you know the rest." The Eye's pupils seemed to grow with every word I spoke. Against all odds, the asphyxiation seemed to be doing no good. He was right. I had nothing left to lose I my life. He knew I was right. Flags knew as well. "It's been fun," I finally said, allowing my head to fall to the wayside. Now from beyond the doors, the soldiers exploded in an uproar of questions, some pounding to be let inside while others approached the window to ask for orders from the two commanders. The Eye remained clutching my throat, his grip loosening as he looked wildly around at the crowds. "Quiet! Quiet now!" Only this time they didn't stay quiet. Questions were thrown from every direction, filling the small cabin with an immense pressure. The two commanders seemed to be drowning in it now, unsure what to do. What to say. And then they all heard it, the sounds of sirens. And lights of red and blue on the horizon.
Panic was the only word to describe the responses. The Eye immediately released his grasp on me, allowing my body to fall to the floor, where I remained, motionless. The Eye and Flags stood helplessly in the windowsill, pushing soldiers out of the way as a car with red and blue flashing lights drove up over a distant hill, allowing itself to be siloghetted by the moon. Then more sirens, as a second car drove up besides the first, it's lights also flickering wildly in the otherwise calmness of the night. Two soldiers immediately sprinted away from the window, their footsteps and wild panting now being heard running far back into the forested area beyond the base. They were running away. "Flags what do we do!" a soldier yelled as yet another THEM member slipped away into the night. Flags was unresponsive, staring endlessly at the cars, flabbergasted by the sight. Before anyone would dare speak again, there came a third cop car on the horizon, pulling up beside the other two. "We..." Flags trailed off. "We need to..." Then the tipping point. The doors of each cop car swung open as two siloghetted officers removed themselves from the vehicles. The figures began sprinting towards the base, leaving some members frozen like dear in headlights, while others ran away, refusing to listen to The eye as he called out for members to stay. Then a gunshot. Then another. At last the remaining soldiers screamed in sheer terror, all of them fleeing the premises as more gunshots echoed through the night. "They're firing at us!" Flags said, flabbergasted. "They're firing at us! Those bastards!" The figures drew closure, losing none of their speed and still sending off gunshots. They were no more than a minute away. "We don't abandon ship," The Eye stammered, though it seemed more like a question than anything else. In a swift motion, the only other guard left in the room bailed out the door. It was only the three of us now. The three of us and the six officers, with undoubtedly more on the way. "W-we need to go!" Flags said in a shaky voice. "Rethink the plans, find a new base!" He reached over to his coat, quickly throwing it on as The Eye hesitantly reached for his own. Just as the two approached the door, ready to escape, I suddenly threw myself at them from behind, tackling both the commanders to the floor with a single bound. Before either could hope to react, I dug my knee into The eye's throat, while attempting to hold Flags to the floor in the same fashion with my right arm. "What part of going out together do you not understand?" I said to them with crazy eyes as the shots outside seemed to draw ever closer. "You're insane!" Flags cried out; grabbing onto my arm and forcing it off of him, regaining his stance and swiftly kicking me off of The Eye. I hurtled briefly to the floor as the two once again turned towards the door and swung it open. Refusing to give in, I leapt from my position on the floor, grabbing on their fleeting ankles, tripping the two and sending The Eye's head crashing into the doorframe. "I'm not insane," I replied starkly, rising to my feet and dragging the two fully back inside, ignoring the harsh kicks the two were delivering to my arm and side. They were fighting for their lives now. "I'm fair." I finished; now catching Flag's incoming foot and swinging him hard against a wall. The Eye regained some consciousness and escaped my grasp, unleashing a series of blows to my chest and stomach. The deadly barrages pinned me to a wall as Flags slowly rose to his feet, staggering towards a door and abandoning The Eye to finish me. "This is what you wanted!" The Eye shouted as he landed more hits all over my body, my reflexes to slow to block a majority of them. "If you want us dead then you can be damn sure we're gonna drag you along with us!" As Flags hobbled towards the nearest door, I summoned up all my energy to grab one of The Eye's incoming fists. Time reached a standstill as I grabbed at The Eye's arm, using all my strength to pull him over my shoulder; his weight nearly sending me to the floor. But I was through falling. I was through waiting for luck. This was the time for me to make my own. Utilizing all the emerging left in my muscles, I tossed The Eye away from me, sending him hurtling like a cannonball into Flags just at the door's edge. Flags moaned and cursed in pain as the dazed Ivan slowly rolled himself onto the cold, dirty floor. I stood to the side, allowing them to steadily rise to their feet. Nolonger having the confidence to waste more time facing me, Flags reopened the door, Ivan not far behind. I only stood smiling as the door was opened the rest of the way, revealing Phaze standing in the doorway, blocking the exit. "No..." Flags said to himself as he drew back inside, attempting to slam the door shut. Phaze's foot prevented this action as the door towards the back of the base was flung open, revealing the five other figures which had been seen running this way. More S.S.C soldiers, their weapons raised to Flags and the Eye as they spread out all over the base. One trooper turned on a flashlight, flickering it two times to the cars on the horizon, who swiftly turned off the fake lights planted above them, as well as silencing the noises of gunshots and sirens being broadcasted by loudspeaker just over the nearby hill. Now the world was silent again. And I embraced that cold silence as I approached the two commanders, signaling for The Eye to be dispatched. In two swift motions, the nearest soldier sent the butt of the BB-gun rocketing into The Eye's forehead, sending him down against the wall, where he hit his head and was subsequently knocked unconscious. Flags was on his knees now, perhaps ordered to do so by Phaze, or perhaps doing so by his own accord. "No," he pleaded quietly. "Please no." I stared at him, my fake smile long gone and replaced with that cold stare. "Yes," I replied. And he too, was dispatched.
The air had grown bitterly cold as the night pressed on. We were all silent, allowing for only the sounds of wind and the occasionally absentminded groan from our two detainees to meet our ears. We were transferring them to a shed provided to us by an older S.S.C recruit. The structure had been built quite practically in the middle of nowhere. Far enough from any houses or roads to cause a disturbance. The plan was originally to transport them by car, though I couldn't resist the opportunity to see the two commanders, once so high and prestigious, now being dragged through the grime and snow. We were flanked from every side by our absolute best soldiers. Armed to the teeth with BB-guns, combat sticks, and other gadgets that even I was not made aware of. We were taking no chances this time. No surprise attack. No booby traps over the next hill or past the next tree. Every step we took was monitored through each of our eyes. We acted as some kind of giant creature of sorts. Slowly crawling through the desolate fields of icy snow. It's many eyes flickering every which way, piercing through the dark like a hot knife through butter. It was only once we saw the lights of other awaiting S.S.C members at the barn that I truly knew we'd succeeded. The troops watched first in shock and awe. Watching this great beast approaching them, dragging with it the two rats of prey they'd been waiting to sink their teeth into. As soon as the faces were identified as Flags and The Eye, the crowd went into an uproar, some shouting cheers of joy, as others lunged forward, giving brief strikes to the commanders' heads and backs. The commotion awoke the two of them, at least partially. Their heads bobbed unevenly, trying to look in some direction without the screaming troops. But they were surrounded. It must have looked like pure chaos to them. My heaven had become their hell. Two rocks shot from the crowd at one point, both striking The Eye in the side, causing him to flinch in a distinct pain and loud out a low whimper. Neither bothered to struggle now as they ducked their heads down, to cowardly to look upon my troops. They knew how alone they were. And it terrified them. But I wasn't done yet. I'd show them what it truly felt like to be alone. And I'd show them true fear. It was what Noah had wanted. And inside the barn they went.
Truth of The Blood Man:
"He's fully awake," I was told as I sat silently with Phaze at the entrance to the barn. Other members had been removed from the premises to avoid... unfortunate accidents that could have occurred had Flags or The Eye been left alone. Now only five soldiers, myself included watched over this place. I knew an attack would never happen. Not with two commanders on the line. In fact, I doubted a single THEM soldier was even aware of the ruse. Nor would they be anytime soon. "We've checked him for communication devices or weapons," the soldier continued. He's been stripped of any gear we found on him. And we have him bound tightly to the wall. The Eye is not going anywhere." "Good," I replied quietly. "Phaze and I will speak with him now. You and the others work on waking up our other special guest." With that, Phaze and I stood and slowly worked our way towards the portion of the barn where The Eye was being held. We found him in the very back, bound to a wooden pillar by his feet. His arms remained in a tied state behind his back. This left The Eye strewn diagonally, his face stuck against the splintered wooden floor of the premises. This awkward position make him seem weaker than ever before, now simply rubbing his head up against the ground and murmuring quietly to himself. Phaze stopped to stare as I bent down at his side."Drathm 5," I said robotically. "We know you had a plan. We know you had a date set. Now we need to know the details on what's changed." The Eye offered no response, still rubbing his head into the floor, scraping his cheek against the boards. He had been tied in such a way that lying like this, with his head to the floorboards, was the only proper way to avoid neck injury. Moving his head in the wrong way could make for a severely unpleasant experience. "Drathm 5," I reiterated, now in a more commanding tone. "Call it off. Whatever you have in mind. It's all being called off tonight. Calvin can't make a move without his commanders." The Eye growled almost like a wild animal. His fists clenched behind his back as he desperately struggled to free himself from the bonds. I slowly reached over to the cords wrapped about his wrists, carefully taking them into my hands and tightening them as far as they'd go, slicing into The Eye's flesh and cutting off circulation to his hand, which was growing a pale blue. The Eye refused to open his jaw, for doing so would risk disbalancing him and sending him down on his neck. Instead he only cried out from his clenched teeth. A inhuman sound of agony. "I want it called off," I whispered in his ear. When still there came no response, I swiftly stood myself up, grabbing onto the hair at the back of The Eye's head and lifting it from the ground. Now The Eye's mouth shot open, as he gasped for air, feeling the soreness in his jaw and the pain flaring up around his neck. I stared at him for a while, his eyes wide open like that of a frightened deer. His mouth almost panting like an exhausted dog. His upper lip was busted and still bleeding despite the cold, and multiple splinters had wedged themselves in his cheek. It was pathetic. This was not the face of the feared commander Eye. No. This was the face of something so much less. Something pitiful that had been hiding under his facad all along. Ivan. The boy. The Eye was dead now, or maybe he had never really existed at all. But what I saw in those eyes now was a broken spirit. The eyes of Ivan. The true Ivan. "It... is stopped...." Ivan breathed through the pain. "Without us the plan is completely halted... n-not even a chance at b-being brought back..." "Calvin will find a way eventually," I finally made clear. "Through The Blood Man if he has too." Ivan seemed surprised at the name, staring at me with a combination of pain and confusion. "Flags is the guy you want about C-Calvin," The Eye stuttered. "I swear I don't know anything myself." "Maybe I should jog your memory then?" I whispered to him, slamming his had down into the floor, causing him to slide under his own weight and futher scrape up his cheeks with the rotten floorboards. "How does it feel?" I asked after a while. "To be lying there in the filth... knowing that it's all over? All of it." I asked. When The Eye offered no reply, I continued. "This pain you've caused. Now being directed right back at you. And soon to Flags... then to The Blood Man... then to Calvin... and then to everyone else in your pitiful little armada that dares try to pass off as something their not. Or are you still to blind to realize any of it?" Now, with his energy and spirit drained, The Eye finally lifted his head up from the floor, causing his body to shift forward, crushing down at his neck, his head bent backwards precariously touching his shoulder blades. He had reached a point almost beyond pain now. Where no noise, no yelp, no plea could possibly express his agony. Instead he was left with silence. I was all to familiar with the feeling. And now here we were. Both feeling it together. The pain of the body and mind. "It's best you don't point fingers," The Eye struggled to say. "The only one blind in this room, is you." "Really? How so?" I asked, now drawing my foot forward, stepping on the back of The Eye's sagging head. "Y-you organized the S.S.C," The Eye growled through the pain. You're smart enough to make everyone beneath you into mindless fools who follow you at a whim. To what end, even they don't know. And even after all that... y-you still d-don't understand that just as you are more blind than all the rest... The Blood Man... is also you."
We left The Eye in his position of agony, exiting the back and heading towards the front doors. When our footsteps finally ceased, we at last heard The Eye moaning to himself, spilling out all of his agony to that silent space. "You think he's telling the truth?" Phaze asked. "About The Blood Man? And about Flags knowing more about Calvin?" I stared emptily back at the doors. "They're not going anywhere," I replied at last. "The more they lie, the longer they stay." Phaze paused a moment, seemingly biting his tongue at the words, before finally speaking. "I... uh... The Blood Man story might check out... It would explain those conversations we have on record. THEM never spoke of The Blood Man fondly... nor ever speak about a meeting... it... most likely was you." "I don't care," I replied, annoyed. "You think such lowly talk from such lowly people can effect me?" Phaze hook his head, no, stopping a moment to cough silently into the dark. Finally there were footsteps. "Boss," came the voice of one of the guards. "Flags is awake." I nodded and walked towards the makeshift room with Phaze at my side. "I want all guards to leave the building for a while," I said over my shoulder. The troops nodded obediently and fled the premises. Finally we entered the room, finding Flags tied up, slung into the corner. His gaze shifted almost nervously between Phaze and I, before finally darting away, to stare up at the ceiling. "My troops will come for me," Flags spoke. "And what do you think they'll find when they do?" I replied. Flags gave to reply, still avoiding eye contact as we drew closer. "You know what I saw out there?" I said. "I saw fear, weakness, cowardice amongst your ranks. And in you to. Your troops aren't going to rescue you. Cowards saving cowards; it never stands a chance. And it never will." Flags shut his eyes ight, finally mustering up the courage to turn to face me, scowling in hatred at the two of us. "What do you want from me?" he asked. "You know what we want," was my only reply. "You won't get information out of me, Jonathan. It's been a long time since you've heard that name am I right? You prefer overlord now, yes? Am I correct, Jacob?" Phaze turned away, but I only drew closer. "Where is he, Flags?" A thick silence enveloped us all now. I grabbed Flags by the throat now, pounding his head against the wall as he struggled against me. "Where. Is. He?" I reiterated. "That's what it's all been about, hasn't it?" Flags asked as a bloody gash on his forehead began to seep fluid into his right eye. "All about revenge... that's why you fight. The Blood Man, dipping his hands into the filth, and forcing everyone along with him. Only he's not concerned with what happens to the hands of others. He only cares about his own. Good luck ever getting your hands clean with so much blood upon them." Even more blood now ran onto my piercing white knuckles, as I grasped his throat tighter. "Look at me, Flags," I ordered as his eyes drowsily drifted away. His pupils managed to meet mine again. "I don't care what happens to me anymore," I said. No blinking, no turning away, not even the slightest change of expression fell upon my face. Finally Flag's eyelids drew down, as a realization seemed to overtake him. "You don't... do you." More silence. Finally Flags lifted his head. "You want to know where he is? I'll tell you."
"It was Drathm 3," Flags began. "Calvin had just sentenced you to that field... After the three of you were dropped off... I had to help put up supplies and move the base camp to a new location... Calvin was always on the move like that. Always had guards around him all the time. Sometimes even swapping them out with new one's so nobody could get to know his regimen to often." My mind began drifting back to that field of ice and snow. The cold world. So long ago, it seemed almost like a dream... or rather, a nightmare. "One thing was always the same though," Flags muttered. "I was always aware of where Calvin was being moved... in case something went wrong, I needed to be aware so that reinforcements could be called in. I don't remember much of what was said when we packed up that base after Drathm 3... I just remember a silence... much like this one. We packed into our cars and headed up to the city. The weather was so fowl..." Flags trailed off. "Calvin was in his own, separate car. Five others around him. We were just on the outskirts of the city when all visibility was lost. We radioed each other and said to pull over and wait for the storm to subside." Flags suddenly stopped, not wanting to say more. "Keep talking," I ordered. "What if you don't like what you hear?" Flags replied, avoiding eye contact again. I gave no response, standing to my feet and delivering a crippling kick to Flag's stomach. Flags lurched over in a fit of pain, coughing up blood onto the floor as his wound shed even more fluids down the side of his bruised face. "Last time I ask," I made clear. Flags gagged in pain, slowly drawing himself back up again. "W-we... all pulled over..." Flags huffed. "We could only see headlights... headlights and each other's siloghettes... It must have been ten whole minutes before we realized it..." "Realized what?" I questioned through my teeth. "He was gone," Flags said at last. "He'd kept driving through that storm... and we never even noticed it... the snow covered his tracks and even when we sent out half a dozen troops to search for his vehicle... nothing was ever found." Flags stopped and looked up at my confused face. "He left us, Jonathan. He vanished off the face of the Earth. And we've heard nothing since." I stood back in shock for moment, my mind racing with thousands of questions. Finally my scowl returned, as I strangled Flags against the wall once more. "You goddamned liar!" I roared. "He can't be gone! Who's been making the plans? The attacks! Everything!" "It's been us, Jonathan." Flags said quietly. "We decided to keep THEM in the dark about Calvin's absence, stating he was still in hiding and that we were getting orders from him. In actuality... The Eye, myself, and several others were running the show. Establishing ourselves as the leaders THEM didn't even know it had." I began to grit my teeth as he continued. "We... The Eye and me... worked on attack strategies... our several accomplices mainly provided money or troops... Dante was one of them... until his finances could nolonger come in..." "No..." I said under my breath before lifting Flags by his throat. "No! He's not gone! You know where he is! You're protecting him!" Flags coughed and wheezed, unable to say more. "You're covering for him!" I yelled again. "I see through your damned lies!" With these words, I threw Flags across the room into the wall, where he collapsed and quivered helplessly on the floor. "There are..." Flags coughed as his bloodied forehead dripped further over his face. "No lies to see through... but looking at you, Jonathan... all I see... is red." I was steaming now, my hands balled up into fists and my teeth barred. Phaze suddenly placed his hand on my shoulder. "Boss-" he began, but I wouldn't let him continue. "Leave us!" I shouted back, throwing his arm away from me. Phaze hesitated, before silently removing himself from the room. Flags was shaking now, desperately trying to ease himself up the wall and stand as I approached him. "It's not my fault!" Flags shouted in a shaky voice. "It's not my fault!" "Not your fault?" I repeated, kicking him back to the floor. "You've ruined everything!" With that, my fist shot forward, striking Flag's in the jaw. "You could have had it all!" I yelled, delivering a second harsh punch to the nose, breaking it immediately. "You left us!" Another hit to the throat, blood oozing profusely from Flag's nose. "You left us to rot!" Another punch. "Left us to die!" Another. "You took our trust! You took our faith! And you stabbed us right in the back!" Another stroke. Eye's blackened, bruises forming, tooth missing. "All we did, to make this dream!" Another. My eyes streaming with tears. "And you tore it all to hell!" Another. Water flowing down my face. "It is your fault, Calvin! It's always been your fault!" A final punch to the side of the head and I released Calvin from my grasp, letting him fall to the floor, unconscious, a missing tooth lying beside his head as a pool of redness enveloped his busted head. I stopped for a moment, looking down at my knuckles, now stained red, dripping with blood. My hands were coated in it, sunken within my fingerprints, wedged beneath my nails. I looked down at the broken prisoner. The image of Calvin faded away, leaving only a lowly pawn in his place. I stood there for the longest time. Seeing red.
Their eyes were wide open, along with their mouths. My troops seeing me leave that base with my hands painted in a thick maroon coating. Two soldiers out from the corner of my eye began to walk back into the enclosure to escape from the chilling breezes of the night, but I held up my hand for them to stop as I approached Phaze, neither of us finding the right words to convey how we felt. Finally I looked up at him. "He never went by Sol," I realized out loud. "That name... just another cog in the machine of lies The Eye and Flags constructed." "How can Calvin possibly hide from the likes of the S.S.C and THEM combined," Phaze asked with a cough. "THEM stopped looking," I wagered. "And we... we've been looking in the wrong place all this goddamned time." I rolled my fingers back into tight fists as I hung on this fact. "He ran because he was scared of us," I growled. "That has to be it. He knew it would lead... lead to all of this!" Angrily, I swung my arm back, gesturing to the troopers in black and red and to the fortress where the Eye still howled in pain. "He thinks he can just walk away and let THEM and the S.S.C blow eachother to hell!" "We still have a few turns left in our fight against THEM," Phaze said, holding his throat. "The Eye and Flags can tell us who the other leaders are... who other undercover members are. We can cut of recruiting and funding while THEM is at it's weakest. Calvin can wait for now." I glared back up at Phaze now. "All this time and bloodshed and you still don't get it," I replied. Phaze looked at me, confused. "The eye and Flags ran the show," I elaborated. "The rest have no fighting expertise. THEM has no legs to stand on. We're so above them now that our only goal. The one thing we're after, is Calvin and Calvin alone." Phaze shook his head for a moment, speaking up louder than I'd heard in a very long time. "Boss," he began. "THEM might be without primary leaders, but we still have kids to protect. Members are still active and new leaders will eventually rise up to the occasion. Calvin can wa-" "I've heard enough," I interrupted. "My word is stone, Phaze. I say we hunt for Calvin. And that's what we're going to do. From this day on, the hunt for the one man who started it all has truly begun. No more distractions." Phaze's eyes and voice lowered once more and he gave the expected salute. "What of them, then?" Phaze asked, gesturing back to the enclosure. "It's time for our final goodbyes," was all I said.
We kept them there for three days and three nights. Minimal food and water provided by our guards. We were waiting for the right opportunity for both former leaders to bid farewell. And on that third night, we got what we wanted. A final snowstorm. Or at least one of the last before the weather truly shifted back to the warm days. I needed no forecast to alert me to it's presence. As I looked up into the deep black skies of the night, there was an invisible feeling of the storm to end it all. It was in the air, and I recognized it. And so, at almost midnight that evening, Ivan and Flags were awoken from their slumber and transported to a vacant field where I and several other troopers waited for their arrival. Flakes of snow - large ones, were already raining from the darkened sky. Finally the trucks arrived, throwing the two prisoners out the back, both of them still very dazed. I kept them both at a distance as I spoke to the drivers. "Take Ivan to the field... that very same one where I was doomed to die. Take him there just as the storm strikes. And leave him to struggle as I did." Silently, three troops approached Ivan and grabbed him by the arms, hauling him back to the open compartment of the nearby van. Ivan lashed out wildly at the trio, desperately digging his feet into the snow, but to no avail. His jacket swung violently back and forth and he tried escaping. "Remove the jacket," I spoke. And it was done. Ivan was at last tossed into the back of the van, where he lied pitifully on his side, staring my way with his dark eyes. He was shaking. Shivering. His teeth clattering among themselves. And then the doors slammed shut, and the car disappeared into the night. Flags spoke no words, he hadn't spoke at all in his final days of custody. Perhaps it was that, which irked me the most. I wanted to see him shout. To see him kick and scream as his face turned red and his eyes bulged. But he only stared down at the snow now, hiding his broken face from the world. If Ivan could make it through the perils that night offered him, then I'd be done with him. But Flags was different. Flags represented rebellion. He represented lies and backstabbing. I knew in my heart that I'd never want even the slightest chance of ever seeing him again... or... it would be the truly last time. And so his motorcycle was wheeled out from the back of the last remaining truck. "He is to ride aboard that cycle in whatever direction he pleases when the storm strikes," I ordered, within Flag's earshot. "But he leaves this town for good," I made clear. "He leaves it far, far behind. And if he tries to stop, if he attempts to turn back... then you 'convince' him otherwise." Three soldiers approached the silent Flags as the motorcycle was prepped to go. Soon the winds advanced dramatically, sending the snow flying along with it. Flags and the three soldiers faded away into the white mist, becoming only pools of black before at last vanishing completely into that storm. No final words were spoken between us that day. Everything that needed to be said, already had been. This was no time for talk, no time for victory - no. This silence represented leaving us behind. Bidding farewell to our world.
And so time went on. The cold of winter gave way to the blistering Summer heat. It seemed as if we took just as long to make changes in ourselves. All operations and attack strategies against what was left of THEM faded away into that empty void. The S.S.C became everything, ears constantly listening and eyes constantly watching. THEM on the other hand became the immaterial. THEM fortresses soon grew abandoned and were either reclaimed by nature or claimed by us. And with the absence of Magna Oil, warehouses and other similar buildings that were once the start of a town-wide spread, became desolate and empty reminders of what could have been. But while the town and THEM hung their collective heads heavy to these losses, the S.S.C stood taller than ever. For all of us in the S.S.C now, there was one objective and one objective only - finding Calvin. And hunt for him we did. We started from the far northern reaches of the state and country, where his car had last been driving the day of that fabled storm. The S.S.C's connections spread far and wide, and I was able to dip my hands into whatever portion of it's being I desired. When nothing turned up from the north, then so came the East, our eyes scanning the horizon straight to the coast. Calvin became a household name amongst those affiliated with the S.S.C and it's business. Fables spread far and wide, some calling Calvin a phantom, lost to the world, while others dared to claim he had never existed at all. When time came to search the South, three months had passed since the great fall of THEM. Slowly I became detached from search exploits, confining myself to outposts far more than my own home. I sat alone in these buildings, constantly awaiting the same news time and time again, the failure of one endeavor and the rise of another. Lastly came our hunt in the west, calling upon whatever factions of the S.S.C were left and willing to assist us. Over eighty-six S.S.C's were planted across the country, those seeds all arising from that one central plant here. It would keep me up sometimes. I wondered if they'd ever know my name. Know my story. Know that I'd ever existed at all. Every such time I'd quell myself with the same manner of thinking. When Calvin was gone, so-to would I. It was not a happy mindset, but it kept me focused, held me steadfast to a goal. Maybe the world would keep spinning long after I had been swallowed up by the passing of time. But I swore to myself that the world would never overtake me until Calvin was found. Then - and only then, would the world know I had won. And then the news came. The news of more silence. The news that the west - to, had nothing to offer us. And that's when I realized that it was just us again. Just our S.S.C left to do the heavy lifting. The outside didn't know our struggle. It didn't know what we were. It didn't know what Calvin was. They didn't understand any of it. And that is why they failed. But we were different... we were the origins to the fire of the S.S.C and we still glowed hotter and brighter than ever before. Those who began to question my orders were expelled from the S.S.C at once. We had no time for distractions, no time to revert back to the way things were. If one soldier refused an order, he could be sure that three others would gladly take his place, and that he would be trampled over in an instant by our never-ending stride forward. Everything and everyone could be replaced. They were all means to an end, and they knew it. But it was only the intelligent who accepted their part with open arms. They were not students, they were not teenagers, and they were not heroes. They were the S.S.C. The final set of searches began in early July; the original S.S.C, in their original homeland, searching for the original threat. Because I felt it in my heart now, Calvin had never abandoned the state. He was still here. And so we kept hunting.
It was a few weeks into our sweeping of our home turf that I began losing sleep, more so than ever before. I'd find myself awakening from dreams I couldn't recall, or in some instances being unable to so much as keep my eyes closed for more than a few minutes at a time. Only exhaustion could send me into that blissful night. I blamed this ordeal on the threat of Calvin still being one step ahead of us, perhaps working out some new plan to overcome the S.S.C, making THEM a thing of the past in favor of somethin far worse. Phaze would worry occasionally about me, but I would always assure him I was fine, and tell him to continue search efforts. Sometimes Phaze's worries of me came off as strange, as if he wanted information from me, as if he was prying me for reasons that I might be coming unsound. I caught myself wondering often if perhaps he was working against me, secretly leaking information to Calvin on what places to hide and when to escape from our grasp. Phaze would be the perfect traitor, one to surpass even Flags at this point. And then there were the soldiers, who I'd catch staring at me when I passed them, as if they were looking through me like a paned window. What were thy looking at? What did they see in me? Could they be spies, watching my every footstep, delivering my every move to Calvin for his own personal gain? The threat was very real. And so I became a thing of a ghost among the S.S.C, only appearing to high ranking soldiers of which I could trust, and even then I'd refrain from letting any one person know to much about any endeavor. Yes it seemed Calvin and I were to forever me in an infinite game of chess, in which nobody was willing to move. There was... something else to. Something I hadn't told anyone... no matter the rank or the closeness. It had been the week prior, I had gotten to thinking of Flags and Ivan, and if perhaps we'd let them go to easy. If perhaps they'd sold us all in an elaborate plot to keep Calvin hidden in the shadows. Later that night I had made my way to the bathroom, wherein I showered to perhaps drown out these fears. But what I saw when I stepped out and looked into that foggy mirror above the sink was something straight from a nightmare. Blood. Blood coating my knuckles, dripping into the sink and swirling endlessly down the drain. A constant stream of crimson working it's way down my fingers. I quickly turned on the sink, thrusting my hands into the clear water and watching it turn into a subdued brown. But the blood never left. Again and again I tried to wash it away, shutting my eyes on every encounter with the cool water, hoping the red to vanish at each opening. It never did. My head spun and a ringing pain was forced through my wrists and through my head. Reality became fuzzy and the sound of my heartbeat became more apparent, I stumbled back, striking my head on the wall in my repulsed state, and then slipping to the floor. The blood still came. Desperately, moaning now with sorrow, I covered my eyes with those bloody hands, and let the fluids seep over me. I'd never open them again. Not like this. The pain in my head became stronger and stronger still. And then eventually I blacked out to the world. Everything following this oddity was a blur to me. The next morning I struggled to recall how I had ever left the bathroom, for I had awoken in my bed with no signs of damage or bloodshed on my hands. Despite this, my towels were still clearly present in the bathroom, and that distinct metallic smell of blood covered the air, and coated my mouth. Reality and dreams were the same entity now, it seemed. And it hadn't stopped since. Sudden flashes of red on my knuckles persisted every day, always when I'd least expect it. And the worst part... was that I feared it. Feared it more than any attacker, any THEM soldier, or even the threat of Calvin. Those things I could fight... those things I could overcome. But those splotches of blood, meeting my teary eyes in that cold and lonesome room of mine... that was something even the S.S.C couldn't fix. I could still feel the blood dripping over me. Consuming me. From the inside, out.
A Suspicious Return:
It was a dewy Saturday morning when I was called down to our Boiler Room facility my way of an urgent call from Phaze. He did not wish to discuss the matter over the line, so I instead approached the area in-person, a rare feat for me at this point. My guards were ofcourse at my side, and standard troop had been removed from the premises, leaving only those who I trusted to be within earshot. I had no doubt that the news involved Calvin. A breakthrough at last. Our first step towards a better tomorrow. On my way to the boiler room, I had to pass windows looking into the school. It had been so very long since I'd been inside. I wondered if anything had changed. I wondered about the impact we'd installed upon that building, without some even realizing it. And then the reflection. The reflection of myself, and a red tint hanging my y hands. I quickly diverted my eyes back up, it was not something I wanted to see. Suddenly a voice met my ears - two actually. One of Phaze, and then the second, of which sounded so familiar, yet so very forgotten. "Wait here," I ordered my guards, leaving them to keep watch of the area. I carefully twisted at the doorknob and let myself in. Within the boiler room were only two individuals. Phaze... and beside him, Teddy. "Surprise," Teddy exclaimed with a smile, though he seemed almost taken aback by the sight of me. "Teddy," I said out loud, unsure of how or why he could be here. "The folks and I are back for the weekend, Teddy explained. "Meeting up with some relatives and all that large charge." I was unable to answer him, instead shifting my gaze down to his bright blue S.S.C jacket, with the accompanying diamond patch of a similar shade. I then stared over to Phaze. "This is why you called me here?" The smile on Phaze's face dropped away, as he instead scratched the back of his head and looked to the floor. "I... thought it might get your mind off things to meet an old friend..." Teddy put his hands in his pockets and avoided eye contact with me as he scanned the room. "This place sure has changed a lot since my leaving," he said nostalgically. "We have similar posts in my district but... you've really got things set up just right over here... hey speaking of old friends, where's Calvin? And Flags too. I've been dying to see if they fixed up that old car they found in the lot up north." My eyes narrowed as I walked closer to Phaze, who still avoided looking at me. "You didn't tell him?" I asked through my teeth. "His unit wasn't notified about the search. I... thought maybe you could explain things..." Phaze said with a cough. Teddy seemed more confused now. "Uh. That cough doesn't sound good, Jacob. Maybe you should clue a doctor in on that." Phaze raised an eyebrow at the sound of his own name, having not heard it in such a long while. "Thing's have changed," I finally said, facing Teddy. My old friend backed up against the wall a bit and gave a nervous smile. "Uh... yeah. No kidding," he stuttered. "The black uniforms... the... new diamond color... I... don't think Noah sent us a memo on that change." I tilted my head to the side, scowling at him in disbelief. "Why are you here?" I asked. Teddy's nervousness increased. "I... already told you that, Johnny... I'm visiting releti-" I now stepped in front of Teddy, pinning him to the wall as Phaze stepped outside. Teddy's face lit with a sudden combination of terror and confusion. "You come here after all this time," I said. "Wanting my thoughts on Calvin, bringing up names that I never wanted to hear again, and daring to show yourself in those disgraceful colors?" Teddy shook his head in disbelief. "John, what's going on?" he yelped. "Where's all the troops? Where's all the old faces? What happened to the life here?" "Stop changing the subject!" I barked in his ear. Teddy stopped talking for a moment and dared to look at my face. He stared for what seemed like an entire minute. "Your eyes..." he muttered in a tone of near horror. In frustration, I grabbed Teddy my the collar now, throwing him to the ground, he put up no struggle. "Calvin thinks he can get to me by planting these seeds of doubt in my home?" I yelled. The guard unit quickly shuffled into the room, breezing past me and grabbing Teddy's arms, preventing him from moving. "John I-" he began, but I cut him off once more. "He'll have to try better than that! I won't be fooled any longer! I see through you! See right through what you're trying to do, what you're trying to stir up in me! But it won't work! Take that message back with you." I gave a silent order to the unit to drag Teddy away, but he refused to be silent. Instead he spoke back to me, something I hadn't heard in ages. Something I'd never hoped to hear again; a voice that questioned my authority. "What are you talking about?" he yelled as he was dragged out the door. "I'm one of you! I built this! I helped build all of this! Has everyone lost their minds? What have you done with the life! Where has the flame gone? Where has it gone?" The voice eventually died away, and Phaze returned, coughing once more. "We have connection to soldiers in Teddy's unit?" I asked. "I believe so," Phaze replied. "Why?" "I want you to make some calls. When Teddy returns to his S.S.C, I want him to be watched. He nolonger embodies the dream of the S.S.C and he questions it's values. If it comes down to it, set a new leader in his place." Phaze seemed pained by the orders, and did not salute to me, nor turn to leave, instead only standing there. "Do you have a problem with these orders, Phaze?" I asked, drawing closer to him. Finally the salute came and Phaze shook his head. "No, boss. No problems... but... you really think he could be working for Calvin?" "Not necessarily," I made clear. "But we can't allow one disbeliever to pollute the entire system, Phaze. Misinformed members who dare to talk back to their superiors are a cancer to the S.S.C. If it takes disinformation or internal spying to keep Teddy in-line, then so be it. Calvin's plans are growing by the day. Anyone who tries to sway you, both physically or mentally may be falling in line with his new idea of warfare. The moment we let someone slip by us... let them sway our minds or the minds of our followers... that's the moment Calvin drives the nail in our coffin." Phaze nodded. "I understand," he said at last, holding the salute before exiting the doorway to make the necessary calls. Alone now, I felt that stinging pain echoing through my hands again. It seemed like my own mind was turning on me, trying to thrust doubt down my throat. I wouldn't let it happen. For I knew it was the work of Calvin. Mental warfare had begun, and I would not become a casualty of that combat. And so I stared down at my bloody hands and smiled. For no other reason than to show Calvin that despite all his efforts, I was still a survivor.
We must have scowered every public location, wooded area, and field in all of Toparsburg for some trace of Calvin. And while initially we were greeted with the familiar notices of potential hiding spots or leads, they were all explored to the fullest extent, with us coming up empty-handed each time. I watched my expansive list of leads slowly fade away, until there was only a handful of areas left to look, some of which were merely repeats from the past, perhaps the soldiers didn't think I'd notice. And then there came a day when I awoke, gathered news reports that were always hand delivered by different guards every other morning, and opened the report, only to find that the list had vanished entirely. No new leads, no new ideas, no Calvin. I was filled with rage, but not in any way I had felt before. Instead this rage simply took on a deep sense of longing... a deep sense that I had all this anger built up, and nothing to throw it at. That was the first day in long, long time that I didn't bother interacting with anyone within the S.S.C. Now Phaze, not my guards, not anyone. That day I kept myself company, and no one tried to stop me, for they all knew why I hid away. I had failed them. Failed our fallen soldiers, lost friends, hopes at a better tomorrow. Even with all this power, I had failed them. I thought back to Teddy and how he had looked at me, almost in such a way as if he didn't recognize my face. His words took on muffled shapes within my head, blurred images of people I had moved past long ago. I might have stayed there in my house for weeks, had it not been for a visit from Phaze the following afternoon. I knew it was him before even opening the door, for his knock had become just as persistent and predictable as the search for Calvin had been. I opened the door and looked up at Phaze, ignoring his salute and motioning him inside. Neither of us spoke, for there was little to say. "I'm... so sorry," Phaze coughed after a few minutes of silence had passed. I didn't reply, now merely leaning on my kitchen counter, staring out the window at the dead sky hovering above the dead town. "I got to thinking about what Teddy mentioned a couple weeks back," Phaze continued. "About that old spot where Calvin and Flags used to patch up that car." "What are you getting at?" I asked in a voice that now seemed more scraggly than even Phaze's. "It was situated near one of Magna Oil's shipping facilities," Phaze elaborated. "After Magna bit the dust... the place is a ghost town... We checked the building... but ya know... I don't think we ever checked that little old car... or the houses surrounding it. There was never anyone around there to give us leads..." "That's not enough of a reason to go down there," I spoke, though I knew in my desperation that I was lying. "I thought the same thing," Phaze replied starkly. "Until just a couple days ago we heard that some old attackers were frequenting the area. Bringing up food and other materials tied to the tops of their cars." My eyes finally opened wider as I turned towards Phaze. "Attackers?" I repeated. "Not THEM soldiers?" Phaze nodded his head gravely. "Yeah, they have no connections with THEM... I'll admit... I don't think Calvin would waste his time around some untrustworthy gang of attackers." "But there's still I chance," I said breathlessly, clinging to all the hope I could find. "Boss," Phaze said as he shook is head. "It's our last chance... the troops are becoming unstable... they're sick of the searches and if this one turns up nothing... I fear we won't be able to keep them in line anymore. We'll... have to move on..." I stared blankly at Phaze for a few moments, taking in what he had said. "Phaze," I said emptily. "I decide when we stop." Phaze nodded in agreement, but his face remained set in stone. "I realize that, boss. But... they decide who they are." I pursed my lips closed, and sat down in the chair beside Phaze. "When are you going to this last location?" I mumbled. "Tomorrow morning, with your permission," Phaze replied. "We'll have a report for you within the hour afterwards." "No need for a report," I replied, staring at the floor. "Because I'm coming with you." Phaze's face finally shifted, a look of shock in his eyes. "Boss," he began, but I held my hand up to stop him. "I was there to see it all begin," I muttered. "I want to be there... to see it all end." Phaze stood from his set, nodded, and gave a parting salute. "We'll meet you tomorrow then," he spoke. And then he was gone. When finally his car was heard pulling from my driveway, I picked myself up from the chair, and shuffled slowly upstairs to my room. My movements became robotical, each motion became delicate, and simple. I dropped to my knees now beside my bed, and reached down beneath it until my fingers met an icy capsule of some kind. I was all to aware of what it was.
Such a strangeness to it all. To walk from my home, and tell my guards to leave my side. To face Phaze and a unit of several other fighters, their faces unknown to me, and mine to them. How strange it was to feel wind in my face again, to feel my heart beat, not merely to stay alive, but now to build pressure within my soul. These were feeling so far forgotten, I should have thought to never experience them again. It was a long walk to that old shed, where Calvin and Flags has spent their mornings and afternoons working alongside eachother, long before any soldier had shed a single drop of blood. Perhaps it had been there that Calvin had tempted Flags to his side, perhaps it was there that the seeds of our downfall had all truly began, and - god-willing, where the cycle of nothingness could break, and the S.S.C could escape from the smoky suffocation of our burning flame, into this new clean air, striking my face. I wanted to breath again and watch the blood wash away. And so I treasured every footstep and every breath I breathed. Treasured them as a grown man would treasure the toys from his past. A longing nostalgia, for simpler times. At last we saw it, the abandoned Magna Oil facility, already weathered down by the forces of nature, it's brittle bones shaking in the frigid breeze. And there, in it's far-reaching shadow, sat the remains of a derelict shack, alongside it sat a variety of small houses, long-since abandoned. "Weapons at the ready," Phaze barked. There was a nostalgia in his voice as well. This. It had all been building to this. All our hard work. all the blood, sweat, and tears. Hours upon hours of sleepless night, painstaking research, aching muscles and roughened skin... all leading to something so small. A tiny band of soldiers, facing a tiny building, in a tiny, forgotten landscape. "Boss," Phaze breathed. "For safety, you stay in the back. Only assist us if absolutely necessary." I could hardly focus on his words, my body simply drifting behind the group as I stared off at the morning sun. There was a silent chatter coming from the shack, where multiple sets of eyes now peered back and forth out at us. "They know we're coming," Phaze stated as we drew within 100 feet of the premises. The other soldiers raised their weapons higher, their eyes locked on the shack and nothing else. Pure, unadultered determination in their eyes. Those steady steps, and rock-hard gazes, I'd seem them before. Suddenly a large hammering sound, as attackers poured from the shack, at least a dozen, all defending their turf from the likes of us. Troops shot in all directions, Phaze remaining at their aid, shouting orders to each and every one. They were a single entity, one giant beast. The two great animals collided with one another, a mixture of the S.S.C's black and the attackers stale grey. "Loop around!" Phaze shouted. "Round'em up!" I had not taken a footstep since the violence broke out, instead shifting my gaze all around this tiny little landscape. Looking for any sign of Calvin, the old car, some kind of evidence to prove that all our efforts had not been in vain. I looked. And I stared. And I scanned for what seemed like forever. The shouting voices of the fighters faded away, and soon I found myself with nothing left to observe. Maybe... he wasn't here after all. And just as I began to close my eyes, awaiting that singing pain of blood at my hands, instead I felt something else. Something warm and peaceful. I turned my head, finding Summer standing at my side. I heard a muffled scream from Phaze, but it was much to far for me to understand. I opened my mouth to speak to her, to talk to that smiling figure in that beautiful blue dress. But there were no words to speak. She smiled to me, that warming smile that gave me hope. Then another feeling, as I turned to find Noah to my right, his arms crossed, as he shook his head and smiled to me in awe. He looked up to me. He showed me that I could grow, just as he had grown. Yet another cry from Phaze, so distant, it seemed to come from nearly a different planet. My eyes shifted back to the battle, finding the black of the S.S.C now intertwined with the brilliant purple... of THEM. The circular patches, those old and familiar weapons, those fighting tactics so much like our own, yet so very unique and different. The two great beasts, battling in that game of checkers. This game however, with an end in sight. Suddenly the great beasts parted, some fighting to the left of the shack, others to the right. But one remained in the center, clinging to his leg as he struggled to stand and continue the battle. I recognized that stature, that hair, those old wounds... I remembered the face of Calvin. My eyes began to water and my feet moved slowly forward, driving me closer and closer to him. Summer and Noah remained in the corners of my eyes. Soon they too, walked by my side, Mask appearing next to them, giving me that mysterious nod as Flags gave that old salute, a spark in his eyes. We were all here again. And soon Phaze's cries died out completely, as he instead turned to me butting shoulders as he walked to my side, that crooked smile on his face. My eyes flooded with tears, and shed down my face, as that warmth of us all standing at eachother's sides became stronger. Calvin looked up from his leg now, seeing me approach, his face flat and eyes so unsure. But my gaze was solid now. My footsteps constant. My heart throbbing. Calvin must have saw it in us as we approached him, seen that confidence in our eyes... seen that hope that we all carried, and the love and respect we all had for one another. He had seen it... right? And so Calvin snakingly stood, looking at all of us and feeling that in which we fought for. Tears dripped into my smiling mouth as I reached into my pocket. There sat that familiar icy capsule, now planted in my hands. Now hardly a foot away from Calvin, I nodded to him. That old signal of friendship, shining through those tears. And so... I steadily took that knife from my pocket. Maybe he wouldn't understand why it had to be now. But Calvin must have seen one thing. That look of pride in my eyes. Maybe the S.S.C would forget us. Maybe it would never understand that sensation of ours. But... I was very sure... that I would. And I did.